Science PR: Putting journalists out of the picture


‘Are science journalists too tame to be watchdogs?’ was the title of a debate at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), pitting struggling science reporters against their counterparts from scientific institutes. Picking up on an article from last year’s Nature magazine, the title of the debate was provocative and more than a little simplistic.

The problem is not that journalists are too ‘tame’ to do their job properly, but that they lack time, money and support – three things enjoyed more and more by their opposite numbers in PR departments. A fact underlined again and again in the debate.

Don Powell – a relaxed and friendly PR officer from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute – questioned the quality of “production line” journalism but admitted that a “good journalist will always find his or her story”. He added that he would love to control the media, but then explained a little chillingly how there may not be any need.

The rise of science blogs by researcher reporters does away with the ‘middleman’ and, he added, a local newspaper had even offered a regular column for his department to write. Speaking after the session, he said they had not yet taken up the offer but that it was really an “impossible temptation to resist”. (A German member of the audience later branded this practice “undemocratic”.) But Powell acknowledged the important role of journalists as “guardians of objectivity” and how he admired the way they “elicit the wonder of science”.

Patrick Imhasly, representing a Swiss Sunday newspaper, said it was difficult to be a watchdog at the best of times. He then gave a desperate defence of the essential, independent role of science journalism, explaining how his job had become so much more charged over the last 10 years. “If I leave my office for 3 hours, I have to come back with a story.” He said that reporters are now forced to cut corners because of time constraints, often doing little more than copying press releases – which are often so well-written that they are ready to publish. This he called “dangerous”. It reduces the added value of science journalists and leaves them more and more “in the pockets” of science PR departments.

Hans Peter Peters, a senior researcher and university professor, spoke of the other side: how scientists need the media. Quoting his own survey from July 2008 (counting several hundred interviewees), a majority of scientists in Western countries acknowledge the impact of media relations on their careers. In USA, some 50 per cent said media is good for their careers, and over 40 per cent their counterparts in France, Germany and the UK agreed. A tiny fraction from each country, barely 5 per cent, said the media had made a negative impact on their careers.

Peters went on to explain what he calls the ‘mediatisation of science organisations’, quoting a study by INWEDIS. He described how many researchers now need to check with their PR departments before accepting media interviews. The results: over 20 per cent in the USA, more than 15 per cent in the UK, over 10 per cent in France, and around 7 per cent in Germany. We can assume these will only rise.

Clarifying these results, Peters said on the one hand that science PR “helps manage the resource problem of science journalism”, as professional science communicators ‘package’ information for easy dissemination, i.e. send ready-to-use press releases to busy journalists. (But as Imhasly noted, this is clearly double-edged, too often resulting in lazy, passive journalism.) Peters admitted that this “implicitly draws a skewed image of science”, before listing several other downsides:

• Over-emphasising the immediate practical utility of research
• Downplaying scientific logic and autonomy
• Focusing on the competitive character of science
• Framing scientific advances as organisational output (i.e. denying individual ‘Eureka’ moments)

His tips for young science journalists to beat the system?

• Be critical of science PR: understand the strategy and look behind the scenes
• Always use a variety of sources
• Go to the labs in person
• Understand the social aspects of science
• …And most importantly: win the support of editors and audiences

A second session, named ‘Breaking into the Media’ considered the landscape from the researcher’s point of view. Brian Trench of Dublin City University talked of his experiences training scientists in media skills (MS), public engagement (PE), and professional development (PD). (See the slideshow for the responses to his media training sessions.)

As in the previous session, he noted the increasing ‘mediatisation’ of science, and then explained the importance of pushing media training for researchers both “upstream and mainstream”. In short, ensuring media literacy among young scientists and making it a core activity.

Steve Miller of University College London had the final word, describing how last year’s World Conference of Science Journalists in London was full of Western journalists complaining about how they no longer had either “the time or the security to do really good insightful journalism”. He agreed that times are hard, but praised the work of professional journalists who “produce material that is a joy to read, beautiful to listen to, and a pleasure to watch”. Training and dissemination projects like RELATE and ‘New Science Journalism’ are doing their best to uphold this tradition and to ensure the independence of the next generation of science reporters.


Several thousand scientists, students and enthusiasts from 80 countries descended on Turin from 2-7 July for the Euroscience Open Forum, now in its fourth edition. 
This year based at the ex-FIAT factory of Lingotto at the south of the city, ESOF hosted more than 50 exhibitors, institutes, universities, companies and foundations from around the world. Among them was Mindball: a game you can win just by staying calm (see slideshow). Electrode bandanas measure the alpha and theta brainwaves of two competitors, pulling the ball toward whoever exudes more stress or anxiety than the other.
Additionally, ESOF featured a Career Programme, allowing young researchers to meet and debate with top guests during ‘Pizza with the Prof’ sessions.
ESOF is a festival created by Euroscience, an association based in Strasbourg with more than 2,300 members from over 40 countries. Euroscience is open to anyone interested in science and technology.